The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights protects the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religious expression, and the right to a free press against government restriction. As a key component in the very first article of the Bill of Rights, free speech is among the most cherished and frequently-cited protections built into the U.S. Constitution. However, because the content of that speech and expression may itself provoke sharp disagreement, this controversial topic usually concerns differing ideas about what constitutes “protected speech” as well as the methods that should or shouldn’t be used to limit free speech. This underscores the debate around Freedom of Speech and Censorship. The ongoing public controversy over free speech this a popular persuasive essay topic.
In a sense which differentiates this topic from many other controversial topics, advocacy for free speech knows no specific political affiliation. This core principle of America’s founding-that the government shall make no law restricting or prohibiting free speech-is one shared by most Americans. And yet, there is an ongoing push and pull over how to interpret, protect, or limit free speech. The free speech debate topic in the U.S. concerns:
Advocacy for free speech knows no specific political affiliation. This core principle of America's founding-that the government shall make no law restricting or prohibiting free speech-is one shared by most Americans”
The unfettered exercise of First Amendment rights;
Government efforts to place what are posited as approach limitations on such exercise; and
Efforts by political groups, citizen groups and activists to confront and silence speech that it deems offensive.
The goal of this discussion is to examine the various perspectives shaping the public discussion over Censorship and Freedom of Speech, and to provide you with a look at some of the figures past and present who have influenced this discussion. The figures selected may not always be household names, but are instead selected to provide a nuanced look at the public discourse on this subject, and in some cases, even to provide you with a list of individuals to contact as part of your research.
A Brief History of The Issue
On December 15th, 1791, the first 10 amendments of the Bill of Rights were ratified as part of the United States Constitution. The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
This amendment has had a far-reaching impact on the formation of public life in America, from our practice of religion and our expression of art to our political affiliation, modes of protest, and our expectations of a free and fair press. The freedoms and protections implicated by the First Amendment are held as fundamental principles of the free and democratic society intended by the U.S. Constitution. First Amendment protections inform an array of rights that have been challenged and upheld over the course of more than two centuries.
The freedoms and protections implicated by the First Amendment are held as fundamental principles of the free and democratic society intended by the U.S. Constitution.”
Though the First Amendment itself is held as fundamental, the reach of its protections has been frequently challenged, most notably by way of:
State-sponsored censorship; and more recently,
Public pressure campaigns aimed toward “cancellation” of figures perceived to be guilty of offensive speech.
These challenges represent the various ways that both those in positions of authority and portions of the public can advocate for limitations on the protections accorded in the First Amendment. In some cases, these limitations are not only advocated for, but accepted as legal precedent.
While the First Amendment prohibits Congress from making laws to stifle free speech, court precedent has upheld the placement of certain limitations on modes of free speech. These exceptions to the First Amendment underscore the interpretative nature of this fundamental right, as well as the impetus to use limitations and modes of censorship for the declared purpose of protecting public safety. Wikipedia notes that “Numerous holdings of [the Supreme] Court attest to the fact that the First Amendment does not literally mean that we ‘are guaranteed the right to express any thought, free from government censorship.’”
The most consequential legal challenges surrounding freedom of speech do not question the basic premise of this freedom, but have instead centered on disputes around what should or should not be considered restricted speech.
Inciting a Riot: The most famously-cited example of restricted speech comes from the 1919 case of Schenck v. United States, in which Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. analogized that the First Amendment does not make lawful the act of “falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” This assessment informed a 1969 decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio that forms of speech may be restricted if it may be proven that this speech is directed toward, or likely to incite, a riot.
The Fighting Words Doctrine: In the case of Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U. S. 568 (1942), the court found that “Under New Hampshire’s Offensive Conduct law (chap. 378, para. 2 of the NH. Public Laws) it is illegal for anyone to address ‘any offensive, derisive or annoying word to anyone who is lawfully in any street or public place... or to call him by an offensive or derisive name.’” Case law has repeatedly confirmed this basic doctrine while substantially narrowing the definition of fighting words to the extent that a wide range of potentially offensive or hateful forms of speech remain protected as long as they are demonstrably public, and not personal, in the nature of their attack.
Obscenity: Obscenity is perhaps the most debated area of free speech in the public forum. Obscenity is, by admission of the courts themselves, a difficult quality to define. However, precedent finds that forms of speech and expression which can be identified as obscene are not protected by the First Amendment, According to Roth v. United States, 354 U. S. 476 (1957), there is no protection for speech or expression which is “utterly without redeeming social importance,” and that, to “an average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest.” In the most famous affirmation of Roth v. U.S., Justice Potter Stewart noted in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), that “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced... [b]ut I know it when I see it.” This highly subjective standard opens the floor for ongoing legal challenge and discourse over what is defined as obscene.
Defamation: Defamation is a form of speech which is not protected by the First Amendment. Statements in public spaces or in print (and increasingly, on social media) may not be slanderous or libelous. However, the case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U. S. 254 (1964) found that there should be exceptions to the reach of defamation claims for those who are American public officials. The findings of this case denote that a statement must be proven to have been made with “actual malice”, meaning that the defendant either knew the statement was false or recklessly disregarded whether or not it was true. In 1967, the case of Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts extended that exception to all “public figures.”
Censorship in Media
In addition to the judicial limitations placed on First Amendment protections, there are ways that the U.S. government may place limits on the expression of free speech. These limits are referred to as censorship. Censorship is a function-typically performed by a government agency or an industry watchdog group-of identifying, preventing, and/or altering the scheduling or content contained in print or broadcast media. The stated goal of censorship is to prevent the public display of obscene material, or to prevent the exposure of indecent material to select audiences such as minors.
The standards around censorship have fluctuated over time, as has the level of strictness in the enforcement of these changing standards. The following are some prominent examples of how censorship occurs in various media sectors:
The Hays Code: The Production Code-also called the Hays Code after the president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) at the time-was a set of rules governing content in cinema. Adopted in 1930, and enforced with increasing strictness through the 1930s, the Hays Code determined “what was acceptable and what was unacceptable content for motion pictures produced for a public audience in the United States.” Filmmakers were required to meet the rigid standards set by the Production Code Association (PCA), which had a profound impact on film production by restricting sexual content, edgy language, and even political ideas. Though the PCA was not a government agency, Hollywood studios vested the PCA with its authority in order to be insulated from the threat of government fines and censorship. Increasing resistance and changing social mores led to the replacement of the Production Code, in 1968, with the MPAA film rating system that we know today. Rather than restricting content, this structure provides age advisories for certain content.
Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC): Popular music has also been a source for debate over censorship. In 1985, a bipartisan group of women who were married to prominent Washington figures formed the PMRC with the mission of “increasing parental control over the access of children to music deemed to have violent, drug-related or sexual themes via labeling albums with Parental Advisory stickers.” Identifying objectionable content in music by artists like Prince, Def Leppard, and Cyndi Lauper, the PMRC pressured record companies and broadcast outlets to disassociate with offensive artists and content. Their efforts culminated in a Senate hearing, where musicians Frank Zappa, Dee Snyder, and John Denver spoke on behalf of the music industry’s First Amendment rights. The outcome of these hearings was the industry-wide adoption of Parental Advisory stickers, warning consumers of the potentially explicit, sexual, or violent content within certain music releases. Major retailers like Wal-Mart adopted a policy thereafter of refusing to sell releases bearing this sticker, such that the PMRC’s efforts would have a direct economic impact on many artists.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC): Unlike the Production Code Association and the Parents Music Resource Center, the FCC is a government agency with the power to issue fines and other penalties for violations of its standards. Though the FCC is tasked with the duty of censorship in broadcast media, it also expresses its duty to the First Amendment while outlining the judicial precedent justifying certain limitations on this Constitutional right.
The First Amendment refers exclusively to the role of Congress where free speech is concerned. However, the present-day debate about freedom of speech is a bit more complex. Technically, the First Amendment protects a political figure’s right to express an unpopular opinion in a public forum, a celebrity’s right to say something offensive, or a journalist’s right to pen a racially insensitive blog post. Inherent to the First Amendment is the premise that the U.S. government may not create laws infringing on these rights.
However, this premise does not give the speaker immunity to the consequences of their speech. Unpopular speech may not incur government intervention, but it may provoke a response in the public space. Today, that public space includes the sprawling world of the internet, and by extension, social media. Online forums give every individual a public forum for free speech, but they also give broad cross-sections of the public an extremely powerful set of instruments for responding to unpopular speech.
The First Amendment refers exclusively to the role of Congress where free speech is concerned. However, the present-day debate about freedom of speech is a bit more complex.”
The internet plays host to a perpetual tug of war between these two interests, and conflicts often produce real-world consequences:
On one side of this divide are those who argue that controversial, offensive, and potentially hateful ideas should be met with debate, academic inquiry, and intellectual rigor.
On the other side of this divide are those who view certain forms of speech as inherently destructive, and who therefore employ various forms of in-person and online activism to silence and punish offending speakers as a means of preventing the proliferation of potentially dangerous or injurious speech.
Many staunch First Amendment advocates argue that silencing offending ideas is contrary both to the spirit of the U.S. Constitution, and to the aims of honest academic inquiry. Some argue that a form of extreme “political correctness”-the policing of thoughts, ideas, and speech through public and social pressure-is counter-democratic. Those who hold this view accuse activists of using “cancel culture”-public, online campaigns aimed at shaming offending speakers and having them stripped of status, employment, and public speaking platforms. Numerous journalists, comedians, and university professors who are accused of offending speech have been subjected to this form of cultural “cancellation.”
Activists who undertake these public campaigns argue that their methods are not meant to restrict free speech, but to bring negative attention to those who use their freedom of expression for hateful, dangerous, or destructive purposes. The aim of “cancellation”, its advocates would argue, is to demand greater accountability from individuals who use public platforms to discriminate or otherwise exclude marginalized groups, as well as the organizations that provide such speakers with those platforms.
The aim of “cancellation”, its advocates would argue, is to demand greater accountability from individuals who use public platforms to discriminate or otherwise exclude marginalized groups, as well as the organizations that provide such speakers with those platforms.”
Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential figures concerning the issue of free speech in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. This list is vetted to exclude political heads of state. The remaining figures are a combination of free speech activists, Supreme Court Justices who have made consequential rulings on the matter, and authors or thinkers who have produced content challenging limitations on free speech.
Top Ten Historical Influencers in the Free Speech Debate
Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential books on the topic of free speech in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. This list is vetted to exclude religious scriptures, and is largely comprised of both texts about the topics of free speech and censorship, and books whose content has ignited debate over free speech and censorship.
This controversy is unique in that few participants in the debate would characterize themselves as opponents of free speech:
Those rendering judicial rulings placing limitations on First Amendment protections would argue that they do so for reasons of public safety.
Those performing in an official capacity as government-sponsored censors would argue that they are responsible for protecting the public from unwanted exposure to indecency and obscenity.
Those engaging in social activism aimed at hateful speech would argue that they are working to make public speech less dangerous and more inclusive.
Those who perform these functions argue that such limitations are critical to the preservation of the First Amendment. And yet, in each case, there are also many First Amendment advocates who argue that our protections extend beyond these attempts at limitation.
All of this underscores the complexity surrounding the current controversy. Most of the influencers identified here-with just a few exceptions-would characterize themselves as advocates for free speech. Therefore, this is not merely a dispute between the supporters and opponents of censorship. Instead, there is a far more nuanced conversation here about what constitutes protected speech, and how different figures, both past and present, have either exercised their rights, protected the rights of others, or advocated for limitations of free speech.
Our goal in presenting subjects that generate controversy is to provide you with a sense of some of the figures both past and present who have driven debate, produced recognized works of research, literature or art, proliferated their ideas widely, or who are identified directly and publicly with some aspect of this debate. By identifying the researchers, activists, journalists, educators, academics, and other individuals connected with this debate-and by taking a closer look at their work and contributions-we can get a clear but nuanced look at the subject matter. Rather than framing the issue as one side versus the other, we bring various dimensions of the issue into discussion with one another. This will likely include dimensions of the debate that resonate with you, some dimensions that you find repulsive, and some dimensions that might simply reveal a perspective you hadn’t previously considered.
Our InfluenceRanking engine gives us the power to scan the academic and public landscape surrounding the free speech issue using key terminology to identify consequential influencers. As with any topic that generates public debate and disagreement, this is a subject of great depth and breadth. We do not claim to probe either the bottom of this depth or the borders of this breadth. Instead, we offer you one way to enter into this debate, to identify key players, and through their contributions to the debate, to develop a fuller understanding of the issue and perhaps even a better sense of where you stand.
For a closer look at how our InfluenceRankings work, check out our methodology.
Otherwise, read on for a look at influencers associated with an array of key terms.
Individuals dedicated to anti-censorship are figures who have used activism, literature, journalism, and other public platforms to resist forms of government censorship, to support the legal and technical efforts of those impacted by what they view as unjust government censorship, and to help marginalized individuals and groups achieve equal opportunities for freedom of expression.
Bennett Haselton is the founder of Circumventor.com and Peacefire.org, two US-based websites dedicated to combating Internet censorship. Peacefire.org is focused on documenting flaws in commercial Internet blocking programs. Circumventor.com is dedicated to distributing anti-censorship tools to users in countries such as China and Iran, and as of 2011 has over 3 million subscribers through distribution channels including email and Facebook pages. Learn more...
Avedon Carol is an American-born British feminist, anti-censorship, and civil liberties campaigner and a researcher in the field of sex crime, residing in England. She is a member of Feminists Against Censorship, and as part of their publishing group co-edited Bad Girls & Dirty Pictures. She is the author of Nudes, Prudes & Attitudes, and has also worked on other books by Feminists Against Censorship. On her own website, “Avedon’s Sideshow”, she publishes and compiles links to a wide array of stories and events. Learn more...
Jane Vance Rule, CM, OBC was a Canadian writer of lesbian-themed works. Her first novel, Desert of the Heart, appeared in 1964, when gay activity was still a criminal offence. It turned Rule into a reluctant media celebrity, and brought her massive correspondence from women who had never dared explore lesbianism. She did not, however, support gay marriage. Rule became an active anti-censorship campaigner, and served on the executive of the Writers’ Union of Canada. Learn more...
First Amendment advocates are those who undertake efforts through journalism, activism, and legal advocacy to advance free speech rights for individuals impacted by censorship or government-sponsored silencing.
Lawrence G. Walters is an American First Amendment attorney and anti-censorship advocate. He is the head of the Walters Law Group, focusing on First Amendment and Internet Law, and has served as an Adjunct Professor of Legal Studies at the University of Central Florida. Learn more...
Zechariah Chafee Jr. , was an American judicial philosopher and civil rights advocate, described as “possibly the most important First Amendment scholar of the first half of the twentieth century” by Richard Primus. Chafee’s avid defense of freedom of speech led to Senator Joseph McCarthy calling him “dangerous” to America. Learn more...
Vanessa Leggett is a freelance journalist, author, lecturer, and First Amendment advocate who was jailed by the U.S. Justice Department for 168 days for protecting sources and research notes for an independent book about a federal murder-for-hire case. At the time, it was the longest contempt-of-court imprisonment of a journalist in United States history for protecting sources. Learn more...
The various judicial rulings surrounding the First Amendment have helped to define the Constitutionally-protected rights of Americans and the limitations on those rights. Civil rights attorneys and activists have had a particularly profound influence in this area, helping to produce legal decisions that have at once expanded and more clearly defined these rights.
Ron Coleman is an American lawyer and journalist who is an expert on First Amendment and intellectual property rights, especially pertaining to the Internet. Coleman, general counsel for the Media Bloggers Association, wrote in 1995 the first article on intellectual property rights and the Internet published in the American Bar Association Journal. In 1998, Coleman represented Brodsky in the cybersquatting dispute Jews for Jesus v. Brodsky and defended The National Debate’s online parody of The New York Times’s corrections page. In 2015, Coleman represented Simon Tam in In Re Tam, a trademark. Learn more...
Carla Gericke is an author, activist, and attorney. Born in South Africa, she immigrated to America in the mid-Nineties after winning a green card in the Diversity Visa Lottery. She became a U.S. citizen in 2000. Gericke practiced law in South Africa, and California, working at Apple Computer, Borland, Logitech, and Scient Corporation. Gericke is President Emeritus of the Free State Project. In 2014, she won a landmark First Circuit Court of Appeals case that affirmed the First Amendment right to film police officers. Learn more...
Alexander Peter Allain became one of the United States’ most adamant fighters for the freedom of expression though his work as a lawyer and library advocate. His career was devoted to securing First Amendment rights for libraries. Learn more...
Referring to the exercise of the First Amendment, free speech has frequently been challenged and tested, particularly when it runs contrary to mainstream views of decency. For this reason, many prominent disputes over free speech have involved representatives of the adult film industry, the artistic avant garde, or advocates of religious liberties.
Gloria Leonard was an American pornographic actress who became the publisher of High Society magazine. As a board member of Adult Video Association and its successor the Free Speech Coalition, Leonard was an outspoken advocate for the adult film industry and free speech rights. Learn more...
Susan Benesch is an American journalist and scholar of speech who is known for founding the Dangerous Speech Project. Benesch is a free speech advocate, recommending the use of counterspeech rather than censorship to delegitimize harmful speech. Learn more...
Steven Gey was an American legal academic and one of the leading US scholars on religious liberties and free speech. He was David and Deborah Fonvielle and Donald and Janet Hinkle Professor at Florida State University College of Law. His scholarship includes Cases and Materials on Religion and the State and dozens of articles on religious liberties, free speech, and constitutional interpretation. Gey was an active participant in national debates regarding the teaching of evolution in public schools and he served as a regular commentator on legal issues for ABC News in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election. In 2007, he received the “Friend of Darwin Award” from the National Center for Science Education, recognizing his tireless advocacy for the teaching of science in schools. Learn more...
The phrase “freedom of speech” carries a Constitutional overtone, and implies the shared understanding that this is an inalienable right protected by the First Amendment. Those affiliated with the phrase are often political science scholars, legal scholars, and civil rights attorneys who have helped to more explicitly define what the First Amendment intends through this protection.
Murray Dry is an American political scientist specializing in American constitutional law, American political thought, political philosophy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, federalism, separation of powers, and the American founding. He is perhaps most noted for having helped to compile The Complete Anti-Federalist with his former teacher Herbert Storing. He is currently the Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science at Middlebury College, having earned his BA, MA, and Ph.D at the University of Chicago, where he studied under Storing and Leo Strauss, among others. For the 2009-2010 academic year, he was a Visiting Professor at Yeshiva University. His current area of research is in the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, and he recently published a book on that subject. Learn more...
Harriet Fleischl Pilpel was an American attorney and women’s rights activist. She wrote and lectured extensively regarding the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and reproductive freedom. Pilpel served as general counsel for both the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood. During her career, she participated in 27 cases that came before the United States Supreme Court. Pilpel was involved in the birth control movement and the pro-choice movement. She helped to establish the legal rights of minors to abortion and contraception. Learn more...
Judith Fingeret Krug was an American librarian, freedom of speech proponent, and critic of censorship. Krug became director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association in 1967. In 1969, she joined the Freedom to Read Foundation as its executive director. Krug co-founded Banned Books Week in 1982. Learn more...
Though the key term search yielded zero influencers who were identified as “pro-censorship,” the terms “obscenity law” and “film censor” yielded some examples of those who, through their official capacities in law enforcement or public administration, placed limitations upon the conditions of free speech.
Roy Early Blick was the director of the Morals Division of the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia in the United States during the mid-twentieth-century. He oversaw investigation of and apprehension for offenses related to burlesque, pornography, child pornography, and other obscenity and indecency, prostitution, crimes of “sex perversion” including homosexuality, and gambling. Even before becoming director of the Morals Division, during his preceding career with the MPD, he was consulted by US federal lawmakers, testified before Congress on several occasions, and worked with the FBI on related law enforcement matters. Freedom of Information Act lawsuits in the twenty-first century revealed previously-classified documents indicating frequent meetings and correspondence between the Central Intelligence Agency and Blick during his service as a police official. Learn more...
Lloyd Tilghman Binford was an American insurance executive and film censor who was the head of the Memphis Censor Board for 28 years. Learn more...
Joseph Ignatius Breen was an American film censor with the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America who applied the Hays Code to film production. Learn more...
John Trevelyan, CBE was Secretary of the Board of the British Board of Film Censors from 1958 to 1971. Learn more...
These phrases are often wielded satirically or derisively to characterize those who would place limitations on free speech through forms of grassroots activism aimed at shaming or punishing those they view as being guilty of offensive, hateful, or marginalizing speech. These terms did not yield evidence of influencers who are opposed to free speech, but instead, yielded a group of influencers who tend to invoke controversy through their exercise of free speech, and who are derisive of these forms of activism.
Milo Yiannopoulos , or pen name Milo Andreas Wagner, is a British far-right political commentator, polemicist, public speaker and writer. Through his speeches and writings, he ridicules Islam, feminism, social justice, and political correctness. Yiannopoulos is a former editor for Breitbart News, a far-right media organization. Leaked emails have shown that his book Dangerous and many of his Breitbart articles were ghost-written by a Breitbart colleague. Learn more...
Scott Norvell is a blogger and columnist for the Fox News Website, having run a column there since 2001. Norvell’s blog and column at Fox News, entitled “Tongue Tied”, details incidents of what he considers extreme “political correctness”. He is also the primary author of the former website www.tonguetied.us which deals with similar issues of language use, American politics, and international politics. The top of the site quotes the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Learn more...
Kathy Shaidle is a Canadian author, columnist, poet and blogger. A self-described “anarcho-peacenik” in the early years of her writing career, she moved to a conservative, Roman Catholic position following the September 11 attacks, and entered the public eye as the author of the popular RelapsedCatholic blog. Citing some points of friction with her faith, Shaidle relaunched her blogging career under her current FiveFeetofFury blog. Her views on Islam, political correctness, freedom of speech, and other issues have ignited controversy. Learn more...
Interested in building toward a career on the front lines of the Censorship and Freedom of Speech? As you can see, there are many different avenues into this far-reaching issue. Use our Custom College Ranking to find: